Philadelphia Urban Seminar makes successful switch to online presence

Jim Carlson
August 12, 2020

PHILADELPHIA — If there’s one course among the College of Education’s vast array of subjects that would appear to be difficult to conduct virtually, it’s the CI 295D Philadelphia Urban Seminar that runs for two weeks in Center City Philadelphia during Penn State’s Maymester.

But when the coronavirus pandemic turned the academic world virtually upside down, Jeanine Staples and four graduate teaching assistants (TAs) went to work to enable students to enjoy as rewarding an experience as possible. Staples, professor of education (language and literacy education) and African American studies, said planning was more hectic than usual, but with TAs who knew the curriculum so well and the help of Penn State Outreach, it became doable.

Staples’ team of teaching assistants consisted of Nakisha Whittington, Azaria Cunningham, Di Liang and JD McCausland.


Jeanine Staples

IMAGE: Penn State

For more than a decade, the course has acclimated students to the cultures of the city, and they have opportunities to live as visiting members of neighborhoods, communities and schools. COVID-19 forced educators such as Staples to come up with other creative ideas to serve the 16 students who enrolled during the spring semester.

“We achieved a type of simulation through intense and demanding scheduling [similar to what we would create in the city], online placements and lots of guest speakers,” she said. “We invited not only Philadelphia School District classroom teachers, but also Mastery Charter School teachers, administrators, parents and community activists into our Zoom rooms. 

“Guests talked about their personal and professional experiences in the city — loving their neighborhoods and creating activist identities to advocate for their vision for a powerful future and healthy present. Hearing guest expert voices, seeing their spaces, watching the videos they shared and doing our own research provided a rich experience this year.”

Staples said the major obstacles had to do with coordinating a large number of constituents, such as risk management, curriculum and instruction, Philadelphia Public Schools, La Salle University and Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the founding institution that coordinates the Urban Seminar statewide.

“We did not have full cooperation of the Philadelphia School District because the pandemic shut down in-person meetings and launched everyone into a hurried and loosely coordinated online realm,” Staples said. “However, through my professional contacts at Mastery Charter Schools, I was able to secure ‘virtual placements’ for all enrolled students this year. The team and I created a gorgeous miracle.”

Maya Urbanski, an education major from State College, wanted to take the course for a variety of reasons, such as getting in-person instruction time early by teaching in Philadelphia, and being away for two weeks to treat it like a practice study abroad, since she’s planning on studying abroad in the spring. 

“It definitely was pretty disappointing to not be able to live in the city and get that hands-on experience,” Urbanski said. “However, Dr. Staples and the TA team was able to duplicate a lot of it very effectively; we got to observe in Zoom classrooms of a charter school in Philadelphia, we had lots of guest speakers come to our Zoom meetings like teachers, parents, administrators and social justice leaders. 

“Between observing in classrooms and meeting in Zoom three times a day, it still felt like a very immersive experience. I learned a lot from Dr. Staples’ lectures, our guest speakers and the teachers we got to observe.”

Urbanski said that during the seminar, the class discussed issues surrounding race and racism, gender and sexism, and disability and ableism. “We read a lot of articles before the course started about these issues, and then throughout the course we would have discussions on how each of those plays a role in schools,” she said. “We read a lot of case studies of teachers in various situations regarding racism, sexism and ableism, and we had to talk about what we would do in those situations. 

“I think the hardest part, though, was looking into ourselves as students and finding our own unconscious biases," said Urbanski. "We wrote small papers throughout the course that we would get feedback on from our TAs, and that feedback pushed me in ways I hadn’t been pushed before."

Urbanski said each thought she proposed was questioned to figure out why she thought that way and how she had learned to think that way. 

“That self-actualization process was personally difficult more than anything, but it was very rewarding,” she said. “I feel like because of this class I am a much more observant and thoughtful person with regard to the words I speak and the actions I take. Even though the issues were sometimes challenging to talk about, it is my duty to take that on and be my best self.”

For example, Staples said, the students were still able to "see" the environments in which they would have been engaged during a normal, in-person situation. The class also discussed in detail the death of George Floyd, a Black citizen killed by police in Minnesota in late May.

One of the videos students viewed was produced by Sharif El-Mekki, founding director of the Center for Black Educator Development. “I would say our strategy (multiple Zoom meetings each day, approximately three for class, one or two for placement, and another for evening office hours) was differently effective,” Staples said. “We achieved a unique type of energetic intensity, which is required for pedagogical shift.”

Staples said the class was designed to stick to the typical curriculum with the same readings, discussions, assignments and tasks at a similar pace.

“With our focus on what we know works to create socio-emotional and intellectual transformation in relation to students' understanding of what white supremacist patriarchal ideology is — what it looks, sounds and feels like, and how it adversely and systemically affects the social and academic experience of student and teachers — we were able to achieve similar movements in consciousness,” she said. 

“We noticed a similar adoption of course language in talk and writing, a similar level of accurate and strategic application of course concepts and methods to case studies reviewed about documented classroom experiences, and similar levels of social, emotional and intellectual bonding among members of the cohort, even though we were online.”

Staples said she always chooses to conduct the Philadelphia Urban Seminar in Philadelphia because the overall results are infinitely richer. “However, the fact that we could create a fraction of our magic is notable ... and a relief. The 2020 students really took a chance that the course could be meaningful and powerful, given this online format. Their pioneering energy paid off, too,” she said.

  • MayaU

    Maya Urbanski

    IMAGE: Provided

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 23, 2021